Many consider the former Harbor star to be the best player in county history
By CHRIS LARICK
On one hand, it seems unusual that, of the many thousands of boys who have played for Ashtabula County high school basketball teams, so few — 29 — have scored 1,000 points.
On the other, maybe it's not odd at all, considering how difficult it is to accomplish that feat. If a player starts as a freshman, he'll have to average more than 12 points per game to reach 1,000. If he doesn't start until his junior year — and the vast majority of players don't — he'll need to average nearly 25 per game. Very few players average that for one season.
In fact, when Harbor's John Coleman scored 506 points in 1973-74, his senior year (averaging 23-plus points per game), that total was thought to be a county record. Later, it was discovered that Williamsfield's Harvey Hunt scored 527 points in 1956-57.
Despite the introduction of the three-point arc since Coleman played, no county players in the past few years have come close to Coleman's average. For his career, mostly based on his junior and senior seasons, Coleman scored 1,167 points, 11th on the all-time county boys list.
"It's too bad he was pre-three-pointer," Coleman's coach at Harbor until his senior year, Larry Bragga, said of his 6-foot-2 guard in an interview in 2000 for the Star Beacon's series on "Grand Players," ones who had reached the 1,000-point plateau. "He had a sense of basketball. He knew where the basketball was going to go. He had vision, court sense and innate ability."
Bragga, for one, considers Coleman the best player Ashtabula County has ever produced and he's seen all of the good ones over the past 30 years.
As a result of his ability and production, Coleman will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on Sunday, April 10, at the Conneaut Human Resources Center.
Whether Coleman will be on hand to accept his award seems doubtful. He has had a tough time since an automobile accident not long after high school and apparently has no permanent address. People who recognize Coleman when they do see him in Ashtabula locations report that sometimes he seems cogent, other times not.
Everyone who saw Coleman play in high school expected great things of him in college basketball. But Coleman passed on a couple of closer opportunities, went to Wisconsin-Green Bay, became a sixth man as a freshman and soon quit the team and college altogether.
That was too bad, because Coleman seemed to have all the attributes needed to become a competent collegiate player.
"John was a slasher," Bragga said. "He'd drive to the basket or he could hit the outside shot. Offensively, he was a flat-out player. He could rebound and had a nose for the ball."
Ed Armstrong took over the Mariner reins from Bragga, who became an administrator, for Coleman's senior year, 1973-1974. With Coleman leading the team, Harbor had one of its best years ever, winning the Northeastern Conference and advancing all the way to the regional tournament. Coleman received the highest number of votes for the Coaches' All-Northeastern Conference and Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County first teams.
"John was the best player in the league, no doubt about it," Armstrong said.
But when Armstrong was considering the job, some had doubts about Coleman's willingness to accept instruction.
"The athletic director at Harbor, Bill Wasulko, said I'd have a great Harbor team, but that John Coleman was uncoachable. I didn't know what to expect.
"After three or four games, we came to the understanding that I was the coach and he was the player. From that time on, he was one of the most coachable kids I ever had."
Coleman was capable of hitting from long distance, as he did against Conneaut as a senior, sinking shots from beyond halfcourt at the end of both the first and third quarters. He was also a good rebounder.
"He was a 6-2 off-guard who averaged around 23 points a game," Bragga said. "He was a great shooter and had a knack that a lot of kids never get, of knowing where the ball was going to go. He'd go get it. He was a scorer, but he also led us in rebounds and steals and was second in assists."
Armstrong saw Coleman's skills a bit differently.
"He wasn't the greatest shooter I've ever coached or the best rebounder, but if he wasn't scoring from outside, he'd go inside and score.
"The thing I remember most is down at the tournament at Warren, playing LaBrae. He wasn't hitting at all in the first half, wasn't shooting good. He had become so team-oriented. He said, ‘I'm not shooting good, should I just not shoot anymore ' I said, ‘Don't every quit.' He started hitting and made about seven straight jump shots. He was just great."
Possibly Coleman's best game came against Madison his senior year. He scored 17 points in the half, then got really hot and scored 24 in the third quarter alone, giving him 41, a school record at that time. Armstrong took him out, then, since the Mariners had a big lead.
During the three years that Coleman started, Harbor went a combined 49-17 (.742), including a 19-4 record when he was a senior. Several colleges recruited him. Then-Indiana coach Bobby Knight sent two assistants to look at him. According to one source, Frank Cicogna, a classmate of Coleman's, Duke offered him a full-ride scholarship.
The offer that Armstrong preferred was Kent State's offer of a full scholarship.
"I tried to convince him to go there," Armstrong said. "But he didn't want to. He went to Wisconsin (Green Bay). They had two senior guards, but John was the sixth man.
"One night, their coach called me and asked me to encourage John to stay. John said he wasn't going to stay. I could never figure out what made him go there; it was so out of character. After that, everything went downhill. But he was a great, great player."
Cicogna, a confidant of Coleman's for years, agreed, saying in a 2000 interview that Coleman didn't like being so far away from his mother.
"His phone bill had to be astronomical," Cicogna said.
Whatever happened to Coleman at Wisconsin-Green Bay changed him, Armstrong said.
"He was a totally different person when he came home."
Bragga said he tried to encourage Coleman to go back to school and finish his college education, but to no avail. Bragga even hired him as freshman basketball coach and hall monitor at Jefferson.
"But it just didn't work out," Bragga said. "He knew a lot about the game; he was a very bright kid. He was kind of a loner. He had a lot of friends at Ashtabula, but he played at Harbor."
Matters got worse for Coleman. According to Cicogna, he was driving on Route 20 in Painesville when his car crashed, taking one life and seriously injuring Coleman.
"He totaled his car and messed up his mind," Cicogna said. "It messed him up physically, too, but he recovered from that. He hit his head really bad and something went wrong up there."
Coleman eventually became a nomad on the streets of Ashtabula, walking the streets, living off a little money from the government.
"It's a little difficult to talk to him today," Cicogna said in 2000.
"About a year ago, I ran into him at the hospital," Armstrong said this month. "He knew me and my wife and was so cordial. A little later, I ran into him again and he didn't even know me."